The Old Cave Churches of Macedonia
by D. Petrushevska
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Macedonia is a small country placed on the Balkan Peninsula, sandwiched between Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. Although small, the country abounds in beautiful natural landscapes thanks to the numerous mountains and lakes. It also is a home of historical and cultural places and sites, such as the unique Orthodox churches, some of which have remained untouched for centuries.
Nobody knows how many churches there are in Macedonia. Indeed, it is believed that there are 365 churches only around Lake Ohrid. You can find churches all around the country and you can find them on some really unusual spots – on top of hills, hidden in forests, on mountains and by rivers and lakes (sometimes even submerged under lakes). There is one type of church that is most unique, though – the cave church, or church in a rock. They got their name after their placement, namely they have been built in a cave or in a rock. There are several churches of this type in Macedonia, some of them popular to the public and some secret and never discovered. Some of them are now abandoned, but there are few that are open to everyone.
Most of them have been built in the Middle Ages, although there are few that date from the 9th century. To build a church cave, people would look for caves hidden in rocks. Often, these caves were unreachable, on mountains and surrounded by nature, so locals worked hard to build them. Later, when art started to flourish in the region, local artists painted frescoes inside of the churches. Some of the churches were build next to monasteries, where monks used live and write scripts about the locals.
These religious sites are considered to be a cultural and historical treasure nowadays. Keeping some of the oldest paintings which date as early as the Byzantine period, the churches represent a valuable source of information and inspiration for experts in the region. So far, over 50 cave churches have been found all around the country. Most of them are clustered by the natural lakes Prespa and Ohrid in the south, but some have been found near the lake Tikvesh, Veles and Kavadarci.
There are many cave churches that hasn’t been explored yet. It is believed that people have started to build churches in this style as early as the 9th century. The earliest frescos in the churches date from 13th and 14th century. Often, there are only written proves about the existence of cave churches and most of those that haven’t been explored are unreachable.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the cave churches in Macedonia. However, the cave churches are slowly becoming sort of touristic attractions for locals, being perfect weekend getaways for families and explorers, but also places to find inspiration and inner peace for the religious.
Here are some of the most popular cave churches in Macedonia.
Sveti Stefan, Ohrid
Sveti Stefan is a cave church placed near the village Shipokno in the municipality of Ohrid. Actually, this church is part of the monastery Sveti Stefan. The cave which is now the lodge of the church has been blocked by a rock at the time when the building started. The tiny church has a semicircular top built under the rocks. The church has been painted for the first time in the 15th century, although the building itself is much older. Unfortunately, the frescoes are decayed now.
Sveti Arhangel Mihail, Struga
This hard-to-reach church built in a natural cave is overlooking the village named Radozhda near Struga. It is considered to be one of the oldest cave churches near Lake Ohrid. The frescoes date from the 13th century and the church has been built in honor of St. Michael the Archangel. Interesting fact about the church: it has been a hiding place for the locals in the World War II.
Sveti Atanasij, Struga
Sveti Atanasij is a church also found next to Struga, near the monastery Kalishta. The church has been built in the 14th century in honor of the Alexandria archbishop Anastasij. It can only be reached by the same old rock stairs that are as old as the church. It is really small inside, but it is full of 14th century frescoes, although a part of it has been painted in the 19th century. Moreover, this church is home to the largest collection of paintings from the Middle Ages in the region around Struga.
Sveti Jovan Krstitel, Veles
Veles is a small town in the center of Macedonia. Somewhere between Veles and Skopje, the capital, there is a monastery built in a cave – Sveti Jovan Krstitel. According to the 19th century teacher and author Jordan Hadzikonstantinov-Dzinot, the church used to have a library, which is a proof that it also was a home to monks who rewrote religious books and collected materials for the local citizens.
Sveti Erazmo, Ohrid
This church can be found 2 kilometers away from Ohrid, on the road to its neighboring city Struga. Some say that this has been the first cave that was adapted to a church. The frescoes are painted on the rock in the cave and they can be seen even today.
Sveta Ekaterina, Ohrid
Sveta Ekatirna church is yet another cave church near the natural lake Ohrid. It is placed near the Sveti Erazmo Church and it is overlooking the lake. This church is very small and hard to reach, hence hardly explored, but you can easily notice it from the road.
Other cave churches
Apart from these, there are many others which are as beautiful and as valuable. It is noteworthy to mention the churches Sveti Lazar near the village Begnishte and Sveti Nikola near the village Dradnja in Kavadarci, Sveti Marko and Sveti Lazar near Lake Tikvesh, Sveti Spas, Sveta Bogorodica Peshtanska near Ohrid, Monashka peshtera and Crkviche in Chashka near Veles etc.
Wikipedia also informs me that there are cave churches in other countries, in the region, but also all around the world. Thus, you can find cave churches in Russia, Turkey, Armenia, France and even Thailand.